Even though words are woefully inadequate to express the depth of damage from trauma, they must be spoken. To remain silent is to fail to honor the event and memory. By honoring the memory I mean speaking the truth about it, saying it really happened, saying it was really evil and saying that it really did damage.
I am sharing my story as a resource for others who have suffered in similar ways, or for those who want to provide support to others who have suffered in this way. I am not writing to bring further suffering to anyone else, therefore I will not name any names or give specific details. This post will focus on my perspective alone.
When I first came to the realization that I was a survivor of spiritual abuse, one of the first places I went to for support was the internet. At the time, there were not nearly as many resources as there are now. Thankfully movements like #MeToo, #silenceisnotspiritual, and #ChurchToo have brought an awareness to these issues, and I am so grateful.
I grew up in the deep south where attending church was just what most people did. However, my family was not consistent attending church. I have some memories of going to church and Sunday school as a little girl, but only for a short period of time. As a teenager, I carried a lot of guilt for not going, especially when a group of church kids in my ninth grade class labeled me a heathen for not going. For most of that school year, I listened to them chant the word heathen over and over again in the classrooms and halls.
I met my husband when I was nineteen. He had been attending and serving in church for most of his life. I began going regularly for the first time after meeting him.
While attending church did relieve a lot of cultural shame I felt, it did little to relieve the shame I carried inside of me. I did not understand at the time that I suffered from complex PTSD as a result of the environment I grew up in. Pete Walker has written an excellent book about complex trauma in his book Complex PTSD From Surviving to Thriving. If you have suffered as a result of childhood trauma, it is a great resource.
Trauma entered my life early right after I was born when I was given up for adoption by my biological parents. I was placed in the home of my adopted parents when I was three months old. Our home appeared safe and healthy to the social workers who approved my adoption, however in the years following I experienced sexual abuse, alcoholism, financial distress, manipulation, and emotional abandonment. Looking back on my life now, it is clear to me that I suffered greatly, but I was not aware of it. I had learned to rely on myself in order to survive.
When I began attending church, I really did think that eventually the sense of shame I carried around with me would get better. I became a Christian in my 20’s and was baptized twice. I even attended church multiple times during the week. There was not any issue that I did not believe that asking Jesus to help me with would not be overcome. When I was afraid, I thought it was the devil. When I was tempted, I believed it was my evil flesh. When I sinned, all I had to do was ask Jesus to forgive me. I shamed myself over and over again for not getting better. I truly believed it was because there was something wrong with me.
There was something very wrong, but it was not what I thought it was. I am currently enrolled in a trauma coaching program which has given me tremendous insight. I am learning what I experienced was actually normal for those who suffer from complex trauma. Many children who grow up in abusive homes have a deep sense of shame and carry these core beliefs about themselves:
I am bad.
I am to blame.
I am unlovable.
I am powerless.
Adults who have experienced early childhood trauma also have lasting changes to three areas of the brain; an enlarged amygdala, a smaller hippocampus, and decreased function of the prefrontal cortex when exposed to traumatic reminders. The amygdala is the part of our brains responsible for our fear responses. The hippocampus primary function is learning and memory. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for our highest level learning and reasoning.
It has been an important part of my own healing work to understand how trauma has effected my brain. Understanding the neuroscience behind my behaviors, relieves me of much shame and enables me to practice self-compassion. It also helps me to understand why I have certain emotional reactions to trauma, so that I can respond in healthy rather than self-destructive ways.
After my adopted father passed away, I had dark and troubling memories and nightmares about him. I was confused and anxious, and went to my doctor who prescribed medication for my anxiety. The anxiety got better, but I still carried a lot of unresolved grief and unanswered questions concerning my childhood. I was not aware that I had been sexually abused by my adopted father. Several years later, we began attending a new church when family conflicts caused us to leave a church we had been a part of for a while. A religious leader from the new church visited us at our home soon after we began attending. We opened up to him about our previous church experiences. He listened patiently and offered caring words. We felt supported and continued to go to church there. I was still struggling with anxiety, self-condemnation, and troubling memories, and began emailing this leader for support. Since he was old enough to be my father, he quickly became a parental figure in my life. When I met with him the first time and opened up to him about my childhood abuse, he told me God was going to deliver me from it, and I believed him. Adults who have suffered as a result of childhood abuse from their parents often have a deep desire for relationships with others in their lives who will be a parental figure to them. It is not uncommon for a counselor to re-parent a client who has this need, with appropriate boundaries set in place. In my case, my need for a parent felt like desperation as suppressed memories of sexual abuse continued to resurface and traumatize me.
The more desperate people are, the more eager they will be for a champion to ride in on a white horse and make everything better. People in these circumstances are vulnerable to control and manipulation.
I still think that early on meeting with this leader started a process of healing for me. He was the first person I trusted enough to talk to about my childhood sexual abuse. I developed an attachment to him that may have even brought parts of my brain back online. I believed he cared about me, and it caused me to feel that I was someone worthy of being cared for. Since he was a leader in the church, his care also communicated to me that God cared. The lies I believed about myself began to loosen their grip on my mind. I felt more alive as a result.
Our greatest desire is to feel alive. Meaninglessness, depression, and many other symptoms are reflections of our disconnection from our core vitality. When we feel alive, we feel connected, and when we feel connected, we feel alive. Although it brings mental clarity, aliveness is not primarily a mental state; nor is it only sensory pleasure. It is a state of energetic flow and coherency in all systems of the body, brain, and mind. Human beings respond to shock and developmental/relational trauma by dissociating and disconnecting. The result is a dimming down of the life force that leaves a person, to varying degrees, exiled from life.
Healing Developmental Trauma: How Early Trauma Affects Self-Regulation, Self-Image, and the Capacity for Relationship by Laurence Heller Phd, Aline Psyd Lapierre
Had this previous church leader kept appropriate boundaries and not attempted to meet his own personal needs though me, things could have turned out differently. Sadly, this was not the case and what resulted was a spiritually abusive relationship that would continue for years. For almost a decade, my faith, feelings and family were caught in an unhealthy web of deception. It has taken years of therapy and education about trauma and abuse to untangle this tightly woven web. I made many choices during that time that I will always regret. Choices that brought irreversible damage to myself and to others. However, I want to be clear as well that even though I made bad choices, the abuse was never my fault. If you were abused in this way, I want you to know it was not your fault either.
One of the most important things I learned in therapy is the meaning of the word responsibility. Responsibility, my therapist told me, is the ability to respond. Part of my personal healing journey for the past six years has been learning how to respond in a better way to the effects of trauma in my life. It is always the responsibility of those who are in a leadership position to respond in such a way that brings healing to those placed under their care. If they do not know how to do this, then they do not need to be in a leadership position.
Abuse of power is a cancer in the body of Christ. How Christendom uses terminology regarding gender is sometimes an aspect of the disease. We need to let the light of a holy God expose us and our systems. A man named Jesus had nothing to do with these ways.
As I write this, I am currently on the book launch team for Dr. Langberg’s new book Redeeming Power, Understanding Authority and Abuse in the Church. This book is a highly valuable resource for every church. Dr. Langberg has played a huge role in my own healing journey by providing me with rich resources based on her experiences and expertise around childhood sexual abuse as well as abuse of power. I have learned through reading her books that what happened to me happens all too often in churches and other religious environments to children and vulnerable adults.
Dr. Langberg is right, Jesus has nothing to do with abuse of power. My faith took the biggest blow when I was spiritually abused. Untangling the lies from the truth has been a most overwhelming task. When abuse is intertwined with our faith, separating the two can feel impossible at times. The price of abuse in the church is just too high. With all the resources coming out now, churches have no excuse not to educate themselves. If a church is truly doing the work of the kingdom of God they will want to do everything they can to protect the innocent and the vulnerable, because this is where we always find Jesus. It is a church’s responsibility.
If you are an abuse survivor, I am so very sorry that you suffered this way. Please know that you are not alone and there are places you can receive help. I have listed several resources on this blog, and will continue to update them.
Another great resource that has helped me understand the impact of childhood trauma is the ACES study (Adverse Childhood Experiences). You can find out more information here.